ASEAN nations adopt transboundary haze monitoring system

System would keep an eye on fire-emitting hot spots across the region to curb emissions

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Monday 14 October 2013

Member countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last week agreed to introduce a haze monitoring system through which governments in the region will be able to share satellite data to identify and address root causes of fire and haze.

The mechanism was first developed and proposed by Singapore in 1990s and the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was introduced in 2002. Indonesia, a major source of these fires, however, had refused to ratify the agreement at that time.

For more than two decades now, Southeast Asian cities like Singapore and Kualalumpur in Malaysia have been experiencing haze that blankets them in the dry season. This usually happens because of burning of forests, mostly by companies manufacturing palm oil, leading to respiratory and visibility problems among the people living in the region.

On Thursday, leaders of ASEAN met in Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei and finally adopted the recommendations made by environment ministries of the member countries after two decades of negotiations.

Plantation companies to be made accountable
This system would keep an eye on fire-emitting hot spots across the region; the agreement also obliges them to make plantation companies, a major contributor to the haze in the region, accountable for emissions.

Earlier in August in this year, three environment and forest ministers, representing Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, met in Thailand to discuss the ways to mitigate transboundary haze. Later on October 8, on the sidelines of the 25th ASEAN summit, prime minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, and president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, met to discuss these recommendations. Then on October 10, the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said that his country would ratify the treaty soon with Parliament passing a law banning palm oil plantation owners from burning forests.

Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah appreciated Indonesia’s commitment to contain haze and said he welcomes the new transborder haze monitoring system.

Climate change and haze
While the emissions are induced by humans, the ASEAN environment ministries in 2012 also found that the global climate change is partly responsible for the haze. According to some of the observations made during 2012 ASEAN environment ministers meet to discuss transboundary haze, it was asserted that with last year’s El Nino conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, dry season was prolonged, leading to an increase in burning of forests and peats.

The leaders also discussed the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy (2006-2020), which would aid this system to manage burning of peats, often considered as a slow renewable fuel in several parts of South East Asia. At present, two programmes lead the peatland management strategy adopted by ASEAN nations. These programmes are Rehabilitation and Sustainable Use of Peatland Forests in Southeast Asia (funded by Global Environment Facility) and the ASEAN peat Project (funded by European Union), which included various activities conducted at pilot sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.

What is transboundary haze
Haze is traditionally an atmospheric phenomenon where dust, smoke and other dry particles obscure the clarity of the sky. Haze often occurs when dust and smoke particles accumulate in relatively dry air, usually forming a low-hanging shroud that impairs visibility and may even become a respiratory health threat.

The ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) has a regional warning system for fire and haze situation based on three levels of alert. Alert level 1 signifies the start of the dry season; level 2 is activated when 150 hot spots or more are detected on two consecutive days, with dry weather conditions persisting and prevailing, winds blowing towards other ASEAN countries. Alert level 3 is when there are 250 hot spots or more detected on two consecutive days with dry weather conditions persisting and prevailing, winds blowing towards other ASEAN countries. (The alert levels are issued to the interim ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution at the ASEAN secretariat, which in turn disseminates it to the ASEAN member countries.)

Recently, on August 27, according to ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre, hosted by the Meteorological Service, Singapore, issued a level 2 warning during a short dry spell experienced in the region. The Met centre identified 488 fire hot spots in Indonesia, which started with the onset of dry spells.


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